No Uncertain Sound (Mostly)

Article by   February 2012
A review of Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones (Leicester: Apollos, 2011).

It is surely beyond dispute that, for good or ill, Martyn Lloyd-Jones is the pivotal figure in British evangelicalism in the twentieth century.  Americans may plump for John Stott or Jim Packer; but the latter would not have been the man he was without the Doctor; and in British circles Stott was a sufficiently ambiguous figure to attenuate his influence.  From British evangelicalism's varied institutions - Tyndale House, the Banner of Truth Trust, UCCF, the BEC, the FIEC, London Bible College, London Theological Seminary - to its renewed emphasis on the centrality of prophetic, doctrinal preaching, to the acrimonious split between Anglicans and non-conformists, the Doctor was a central factor in them all.

Given the hostility in some quarters to my view of MLJ in relation to J I Packer, I should probably start with a statement of personal interest in all this.  To me, the Doctor is a giant.  Along with Packer, he had a singular and profound influence on laying the foundations of my Christian faith; and through the work of many of the young men who surrounded him - Eryl Davies and Geoff Thomas stand out in my mind as particularly great encouragers - I have benefited greatly, albeit indirectly, from his ministry.  The published versions of his sermons and lectures on church history were a basic part of my reading as a young Christian.  Together with Packer, MLJ introduced me to the Puritans; and while my own historical method has strayed far from that of these two men, it was they who first instilled a love for old theology in me.  MLJ was also one of the few Christian subjects on which I remember having a positive conversation about Christian things with my late father.   Dad had little time for churchmen in general; but when I told him the story of MLJ's call from a career as top surgeon to serve in a humble mission hall, my father was suitably impressed.  He knew the genuine article when he saw it.

All of this is to say that I come to review this volume on the Doctor with great appreciation and sympathy for much of what he represented and loved; that I believe he deserved in some cases better followers; and that, like Cromwell, he was a great enough man to sustain properly critical scrutiny, warts and all.    This volume, therefore, represents a good contribution to the growing scholarly literature.

The volume covers a significant number of areas of interest to those who want to understand MLJ and his times more fully.  Thus, there are essays on biographical assessments of the man, British Calvinism between the wars, the Welsh context, revival, the charismatic movement, preaching, ministerial education, fundamentalism, Karl Barth, Roman Catholicism, the Anglican secession crisis, and his use of church history.  The volume ends with a significant bibliography which will no doubt be a useful resource for future work in this area.  

Having been chastised for suggesting that his personality may well have stifled the kind of criticism within his circle from which he might have benefited, I was gratified to see this view confirmed by a quotation from Errol Hulse - no hardbitten critic of the Doctor - on page 129.    My question to those who took such umbrage when I said much the same is this: if his personality prevented him being corrected on the issue of Romans 8 and Ephesians 1, is it not possible, even perhaps likely, that this might have affected his judgment in other matters, not least his ecclesiastical proposals?

The two chapters which are the most pertinent to my own interest (the significance of MLJ's call to evangelicals in 1966, to leave mixed denominations), are those on `Lloyd- Jones and the Anglican Secession Crisis' by Andrew Atherstone and 'Lloyd-Jones and the Protestant Past' by John Coffey.    The first of these will now be the starting point in the secondary literature for assessing the context and impact of the call.  Atherstone has done meticulous work in the sources to show that the departure of Anglicans from their denomination was more significant than is typically acknowledged.  He also demonstrates nicely the confusion about what exactly MLJ was calling for in his famous 1966 address.  If not even those present in '66 can agree on what was going on, what chance is there for the rest of us?   For myself, I have said before that I agree with the negative part of MLJ's call  (to withdraw from mixed denominations) but I find the positive part (to form this eclectic, minimally confessional alliance) to be incoherent.

This leads me to the essay by John Coffey.  Coffey offers MLJ's reception of Protestant history as a key to understanding aspects of his ministry, particularly his churchmanship.  One thing that the book does nicely in numerous essays is draw out the wider context for MLJ's distinctives: his Welshness fuelled both his mysticism, his distrust of the English and, as a consequence, his dislike of Anglicanism.   I can sympathise: I like to think my problems with Anglican evangelicals (among whom I number some of my best friends!) are all principial; but I am self-aware enough to know that I am deeply influenced by my sneaking suspicion that it is run by a brotherhood of upper class chaps who all went as youths to the same expensive schools and holiday camps.  Not wholly true, I know; but human prejudice is no respecter of the facts.

Coffey thus sees MLJ as representing one of four influential `neo-Puritan' ways of understanding the Puritan past which has shaped ecclesiastical politics in the present. MLJ saw the Puritans as anti-Anglican campaigners for a pure church; The second approach, that of J I Packer,  saw Puritanism as a movement of spiritual renewal and as moderate on matters of ecclesiology.  The third approach, that of R T Kendall, saw Puritansim as a charismatic, free grace movement.  As to the fourth, I was surprised to find myself as the representative model: for me, apparently, Puritanism was at its best a manifestation of Reformed Orthodoxy, `catholic, learned, churchly and sacramental.'   It seems odd to say it but, while I had never thought of myself in those terms, this seems an accurate depiction.  My only comment on this scheme would be that I think the first, second and fourth models are not mutually exclusive.   I appreciate the emphases of MLJ and Packer very much.

Coffey sees the scheme as indicating a stronger democratic impulse in MLJ than in the churchmanship he associates with my model which he sees as 'top down'. I read that as a polite way of saying `elitist.'  Our divergent attitudes to revival are the key sign of difference.  MLJ was broadly in favour; I am broadly skeptical, though not entirely opposed.  Again, I believe this to be a fair characterisation with one important qualification: my `top down model' is not intended as an exhaustive account of the early Reformed tradition; I have chosen to focus on confessions and doctrinal treatises not to create a normative model of Reformed churchmanship but because I am interested in tracing the development of certain theological topics from the later Middle Ages into the late seventeenth century.  Neither the scholarly question I ask, say, in my work on John Owen, nor the method I use to answer it, require as necessary preconditions a particular theological commitment on my part.   My interest on that level is a scholarly one, not an ecclesiastical one. Nor is it intended, as noted above, as an exhaustive or normative account of what is and is not Reformed. A chemist might well study red wine as a mix of chemicals; it does not mean that he regards the writing out of a chemical formula as all that can be said about a particularly fine merlot, or indeed whether he ever imbibes the final product.  

As to the underlying notion that a confessional model is inherently top down, that really depends on how one understands `top down.'  It is surely interesting that the charismatic revival of the 80s was essentially a middle class movement at the same time that confessional Reformed churches in the UK were represented primarily by the Scottish Highlanders and Islanders. Catechisms and confessions remained alive and well among the poor and the socially and ethnically marginal long after the urban elites had passed them over for more sophisticated or more exciting church pursuits.   Is a catechetical faith `top down' in such circumstances?  Are we to assume that a word-based religion is always inherently elitist in some way? That would itself seem to be a rather elitist assumption.  Nevertheless, I believe Coffey's approach to MLJ via his understanding of the past offers an exciting and potentially very fruitful avenue for further exploration of the man.

On the churchmanship issue, the thing which really divides me from Lloyd-Jones is not so much connected to our divergent readings of the seventeenth century as it is related to our different emphases on later developments.  We both share Puritan heroes - Owen, Goodwin, Bunyan and company.  But beyond that MLJ's aspirational role models were the Methodist revivalists, particularly the Welsh contingent, of the eighteenth century; mine are the men of Old Princeton, Charles Hodge and above all B. B. Warfield.  Perhaps this is a function of many things: our ethnicities, our educational backgrounds, even the books we first read as Christians.  Whatever the case, that is where the key difference lies.  That is also why he thought a broad evangelical coalition was the answer to the church's woes and why I believe such things, at least as they come to supplant or rival the church, very soon (and quite ironically) become part of the very problem they were originally intended to solve.  

Still, at the end of the book, I was left in awe of the man.  We live in an age where the trend setters seem too often superficial, preoccupied with youth and with nebulous trivia like `arts ministries.'   We have leaders with a lot of swagger and `street cred'; Lloyd-Jones had gravitas and did not care to be cool.  Lloyd-Jones may have been less than clear on what he wanted in 1966, but he always had complete clarity about the gospel and little time for trendy diversions.  We have leaders whose politeness too often creates an atmosphere of ambiguity and uncertainty; Lloyd-Jones spoke on doctrinal issues with unerring clarity.   He was obviously a serious man of conviction with a seriously convicting message.  And, for the record, I would take five minutes of his serious gospel exposition over an hour of the conversational stand-up of today's cutting-edge preachers any day.

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